The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

A Note on Kulturkampf and the German Elections


I haven’t written much about tomorrow’s German elections because from an immediate geopolitical standpoint, they don’t necessarily mean that much. Merkel will remain in power most likely, although the coalition math may not work out so easily or comfortably, with the worst case scenario being a return to elections. The constellation of parties that form the coalition are likely to be ones even more hostile to Greece and to reform in favour of southern European economies. This is partly because Merkel’s party itself has done its utmost to project the idea into the German consciousness that the problem with southern economies is not liquidity but rather corruption and inflexible employment laws (keep in mind that German employment law is itself much, much less flexible than that of any developed English-speaking country, as far as I know).

One remarkable feature of this election is the very likely entry of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD; “Alternative for Germany”) party into the German parliament. This will be the first time in a long time that an openly national-exclusionary party will be represented in the Bundestag, and it is very likely a result of the same forces that kept Merkel in power. Remember that most non-German commentators were thinking of Merkel’s refugee stopgap (it was never a genuine, willing opening regardless of propaganda — but rather a way to deal with an emergency that European treaties had not foreseen) as political suicide, because most non-German commentators don’t read German and have less familiarity with German political culture than they do the far more legible (to anglophones) French political culture, for example.

In reality, Merkel’s choices in the refugee crisis cemented her popularity with a large portion of the German electorate while deeply alienating another portion, roughly corresponding to the old West/East divide that a lot of Germans like to pretend has been magically overcome. Overall, Merkel is seen as having made a difficult decision to deal with the immediate situation caused largely by the collapse of Syria, and then to make a series of complex, morally complicated decisions to stem the flow with minimal direct use of German or EU-based force, such as the Turkey deal and the more recent Libya deal. Especially in the time of Donald Trump, Merkel revealed qualities that a lot of the German electorate values — being capable of making “Solomonic” decisions that preserve key German interests, most importantly the external trade surplus and internal banking stability, while even managing to help a few people and keeping German hands at least cosmetically clean.

As for the alienated portion of the population (link in German), some of whom are now willing to vote for a party that more than hints that it wants to take back German regret for the Holocaust (via carefully chosen code words of course), they presently confirm what we know about present-day right-wing populism, and are therefore more “legible” to analysis along the lines of other countries than the rest of the German political spectrum. For one thing, they are largely not in relative terms poor or unemployed, although they may feel more precarious than before. The German SPD, another social-democratic European party in crisis, attempted to run a traditional campaign based on redistribution and better social services and does not appear to have made much headway against the AfD, because AfD voters are not concerned about this. Rather, they are focused on the belief that they would be even better off if there weren’t any refugees, and they largely belong to the part of the population that expects to have control over the racial and cultural composition of their neighbourhood and has a deep-seated emotional preference for homogeneity, which they justify post hoc.

Assuming poll results are true, one challenge for the stability German society with regards to forces like the AfD will be to find a way to politically cordon off this persistent segment of voters from most forms of political influence, a challenge assisted by Germany’s proportional representation system, as well as to deal with the real challenges of immigrant economic integration posted by recent and on-going geopolitical events. That, of course, in addition to the upcoming difficulty in squaring the circle of a trade surplus inside the Eurozone without fiscal transfers, which is a whole other story and will rear its ugly head doubtless in the next and future Bundestag mandates.


Review of Descarte’s Error, by Antonio Damasio


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  1. Max Osman

    Will afd win?

  2. “Winning” is relative in this case.

    It’s a proportional representation system with the government being formed typically after coalition negotiations, as it’s rare that a party wins more than 50% of seats. The AfD is considered likely to enter the Bundestag (as in, overcome the 5% minimum threshold). The degree of influence it will have is anyone’s guess, except that a solo government is basically excluded and direct coalition participation (ie, seating ministers) is highly unlikely. Part of it depends on turnout for the other small parties and whether the FDP re-enters the Bundestag and whether the Greens survive the 5% threshold. The AfD could be an ignored party sitting on the edge or it could lead the opposition.

  3. Basically the German system is designed to throw many variables into the process of obtaining parliamentary influence so that no radical parties can ever call the shots. Except if they win over 50 % of the seats, and even then…

  4. Hugh

    I see Germany as thoroughly neoliberal and kleptocratic. Such systems create populist backlashes, as we have seen not just in Germany but in the US, the UK, France, the Netherlands, Poland, Hungary, and Austria. In Poland and Hungary, the government is already being run by right wing political parties. In most of the others, there is a lot of whistling past the graveyard each time neoliberal parties squeak through another election. Right wing populism is consistently better organized and effective than its left wing counterpart, because the left refuses to grapple with problems like immigration.

    As for Germany and Merkel, the hypocrisy abounds. It takes in 800,000 Syrian refugees, most with little interest in or experience with either democracy or women’s rights, even as Merkel destroys her fellow EU citizens in Greece and the Southern and Eastern tiers. I have often thought that if the Greeks had been smart, they would have staged a civil war and moved to Germany. Of course, Merkel only accepted all those refugees because she intended on dumping most of them on and in the rest of the EU. As for Turkey, the “human rightsy” Merkel has made a deal with the devil. The Turkish dictator Erdogan can turn, and has turned, on and off the immigration spigot whenever he wants. To keep it off, Merkel not only pays him off but is silent on the nature of his regime. Wow, what a principled leader.

  5. The left is conflicted about immigration and I am basically on the open-borders side — but need to full-throatedly embrace one position or another.

  6. Right wing populism is consistently better organized and effective than its left wing counterpart, because the left refuses to grapple with problems like immigration.

    The second part is nonsense. Right-wing populism, such as it is, is better organized because it often has big money behind it. See the Tea Party here in the U.S., or UKIP, as one example.

  7. Hugh

    Phil, that’s a cop out. Oh, if the left only had big money, that would change everything. As Sanders showed, the left can get money if it wants. The problem is it still isn’t listening to voters. It still doesn’t have a message.

    And Mandos, open borders for whom? For EU citizens or for anyone who can get on a boat and reach the EU? Because if it is the latter, you have been between 50 and 100 million of them headed your way in the next twenty years. Have you really given any thought to the economic costs and social strains that such immigration would cause, given what we are seeing at even much lower levels?

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